This Is Not the End
Persevering through setbacks in ministry
I’ll never forget my first collegiate indoor track meet. Surging around the track in a perpetual left turn for 15 laps, my adrenaline and inexperience overloaded my capacity to count. Am I on lap 14 or lap 15? Having been lapped multiple times and realizing half the competitors had completed the race, I finally stopped after what I thought was lap 15.
After I caught my breath and began to walk off the track, my coach came running up behind me, yelling, “You’re not done! You have one lap left!”
He had been calling out to me to keep going, but I hadn’t heard. I ended that day in tears in the women’s restroom.
My false ending didn’t terminate my running career. I went on to finish other races correctly — counting on my fingers with all my might.
Since college, many other blunders have made that faux finish seem like child’s play. Stepping onto the mission field and discovering that foreign soil didn’t give my spiritual disciplines an instant makeover. Transitioning stateside and watching old habits crop back up. Completing years of academic training and waiting for the next big step that didn’t show on time.
Mistakes and setbacks in ministry reveal who we are — and often, it’s not who we thought we were. They can leave us longing for some former glory, believing our best days are behind us. We may even want out, convinced that we’re unworthy of God’s calling.
Disillusion. Former glory. Shame. The Bible gives in-depth treatment to these topics as God calls them out for what they are — real mistakes, yes, but not the ends of the mortals who make them.
Visiting the story of Moses through Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, we read that “Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not” (verse 25).
This may not be one of those write-it-on-your-mirror verses. Nevertheless, I put it up in my locker in high school because I quickly realized that 1,300 other students had no idea what a campus missionary was, or that I was one. The general public may not recognize or care that you’re a local pastor, world missionary or military chaplain. What do you do then?
When Moses killed one of the Egyptians who was oppressing the Israelites, he thought his people would acknowledge him as God’s chosen leader. Instead, they spurned Moses all the more: “‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons” (verses 27-29).
Disillusion can make us want to hide. Moses fled, resettled and made a new start. But we don’t remember Moses for that. The plague-inducing, sea-splitting Moses rose up because God won a 40-year game of hide-and-seek.
Scripture makes it clear that Moses didn’t wake up one day having decided he would give national leadership another try. According to Acts 7:30-31, “an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord.”
The living God came to Moses in his disillusion and commissioned Moses as a deliverer. Moses’ track record of straight losses didn’t matter. God knew Moses could be someone he had never been. Disillusion was not Moses’ end. Neither is it yours. God still has a plan for you.
The books of Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah center on the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple by the Israelite remnant whom Cyrus, king of Persia, allowed to leave Babylon. Ezra 3:11-12 chronicles the reactions of those Israelites who laid the temple’s new foundation:
All the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid.
Ezra makes the effort to point out the dual reactions: We’re finally rebuilding God’s house! This looks nothing like God’s first house!
God’s Word reminds you that you’re not finished.
The older generation and their parents heard prophet after prophet predict the Babylonian captivity. They saw the Northern Kingdom fall to Assyria. And yet their willful, headstrong rebellion led to the desecration of the place where God met His chosen people. Their former glory seemed more glorious than their current efforts.
God speaks into the situation in Haggai 2:3, saying, “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?”
Then He addresses mourners and merry-makers alike: “I am with you … . This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear” (verses 4-5).
What is God’s word in the midst of your former glory? His Spirit remains among you. Be strong. Do not fear. The NASB says, “take courage … and work” (verse 4). You may be sorting through life’s rubble right now with a long, difficult task ahead. Allow the Lord to stir up your spirit, and take action, for He has never left you.
You may feel like the glory has faded, but God has even greater things in store (Haggai 2:9).
Outspoken Peter has much to teach us about Christ’s dealings with our shame.
Between the gospels of Luke and John, we can put together a portrait of Peter’s actions on the night of Christ’s betrayal. John 18:10 records Peter cutting off the right ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. Just seven verses later, Peter denies ever knowing Jesus. I wonder if he could see his hands in the firelight; I wonder if they were spattered with blood.
Both Luke and John note that immediately after Peter’s second and third denials of Christ, a rooster crowed (Luke 22:60; John 18:27). Luke adds that when the rooster crowed, Jesus “turned and looked straight at Peter” (22:61).
I wonder if Peter thought of the words Jesus spoke to him at the Last Supper: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).
“All of you” in English represents the plural you in Greek, referring to Peter and the other disciples. The phrase “when you have turned back” suffices for a Greek tense concerned with completed action. Jesus was not saying, “Peter, when you begin returning to me,” nor “when you’re in the process of turning,” but “when you have fully, completely turned back around to me,” make the other disciples strong. What a promise in the face of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus!
Jesus spoke His words knowing full well that Peter would fight for His life and then lie to save his own. But this is not the end of Peter’s story.
In Luke’s other book, Peter stands up at 9 in the morning, full of the Holy Spirit, and talks about the day he denied Jesus, as he points to Christ’s deity and resurrection. When he finished, people “were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-39).
Tradition holds that Peter, under Emperor Nero, was crucified upside down, since he didn’t feel worthy to die in the same way as Christ. Before this, Peter wrote two books of the Bible. And before that, he received a groundbreaking revelation, which Peter shared with the Jerusalem church, that God gave to Gentiles the same Holy Spirit baptism He gave to the Jews who believed in Jesus as Lord (Acts 10–11).
I don’t know how that sounds to you, but to me, it sounds like Peter, having turned back, strengthened his brothers.
The Real End
A recent fall, past wounds, or the slowly compounding pressure of sin can make it feel like you are at your end today. You may have hidden from God and heard nothing for years, like Moses. You may have heard God call out your present condition, as the exiled Israelites did. You may have felt Jesus’ stare as you sinned against Him.
But God’s Word reminds you that you’re not finished. The Lord will raise you up again. He will put His Spirit in you to work. He will enable you to return and strengthen the faith of others. Remember that Jesus lives forever, and because of that, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
Whatever your nemesis today — disillusion, former glory, or shame — know that the Bible speaks a more final word than they do. This is not your end.